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5 Municipal Regulatory Tools to Protect Water Quality

March 21st, 2018 by Bob Hartzel


Regulatory tools are “non-structural” practices that can be an effective component of your long-term plan to control watershed pollution sources. The general categories of local controls that can be used to protect water resources are summarized below, followed by a table with links to example municipal ordinances.


  1. Zoning: Zoning ordinances are used to regulate the land use activities and development density allowed in each section of a town. Zoning regulations typically applies only to future site development and redevelopment.

  2. Subdivision Regulations establish requirements and review procedures for developments of two or more units. Like zoning ordinances, they typically apply only to new development and redevelopment. These regulations often include requirements for site plan review, to ensure that the project plans comply with all regulations. 

  3. Board of Health Regulations may be enacted where existing state laws are determined to be insufficient for the protection of public health. For example, Boards of Health can regulate septic systems more stringently than required under state law, and can further regulate the use, storage and handling of fuel and other hazardous materials in specified areas. 

  4. Non-Zoning Local Bylaws or Ordinances may be enacted by municipalities for a variety of water resource protection purposes. A common example is a local wetland bylaw which regulates activities in or near wetlands and water bodies. This type of bylaw may incorporate provisions from state wetland regulations and may also expand jurisdiction, add wetland values to be protected, establish filing fees, establish permit and hearing procedures, etc. See the table below for example model wetland bylaws and related resources. 

  5. Lawn Fertilizer Reduction Regulations: Fertilizers can be a significant source of phosphorus and nitrogen from areas of residential development and other areas where grass lawns are maintained (e.g., golf courses, office parks, sports fields, etc.). Landscaping fertilizer ordinances can reduce or restrict the use of fertilizers in sensitive areas. There are numerous successful regulations nationally that limit the use of fertilizer on lawns. New England examples include:

Links to example municipal ordinances are provided below:

       USEPA Model Surface Water Ordinance

MassDEP Groundwater Protection District Bylaw

City of Nashua Water Supply Protection District

Model Stormwater Standards for Coastal Watershed Communities (Southeast Watershed Alliance)

Innovative Land Use and Planning Ordinances (NHDES et, al.)

Watershed Protection Overlay District (Cobbetts Pond and Canobie Lake, Windham, NH; page 61)

Aquifer Protection: Stratham, NH Aquifer Protection District Ordinance (see page 137)

Model Groundwater Protection Ordinance (NHDES/NHOEP)

Subsurface Wastewater Disposal Regulations (Meredith, NH)

New Hampshire Model Floodplain Ordinances (NH Office of Strategic Initiatives)

Coastal Floodplain Management Model Bylaw (Woods Hole Sea Grant Program, et al.)

Impervious Surface Zoning Bylaw (Based on Town of Mashpee, MA zoning bylaw)

Open Space Design / Natural Resource Protection Zoning Bylaw (MA Smart Growth Toolkit)

Example Wetland Protection Bylaws (MACC)

Additional Related Resources

Massachusetts Citizen Planner Training Collaborative

Limiting Impervious Surface Cover and Protecting Water Resources through Better Site Design and Planning (Rockingham Planning Commission)

Innovative Land Use Planning Techniques: A Handbook for Sustainable Development (NHDES)


For more information, contact Bob Hartzel at (508) 281-5201 or


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